Getting the Boot: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Italy

Disclaimer: This article offers insight solely into the Italian Republic. For further information on “getting the boot,” please refer to your significant other.

(If single, Urban Dictionary is usually pretty handy.)

Based on my extensive 2 weeks, 18 hours, 26 minutes, and 17 seconds spent in Italy (a number entirely made up save for the two weeks), I deemed myself worthy to create a comprehensive guide to understanding all the ins and outs of the boot-shaped country known as Italy, former center of the mighty Roman empire, birthplace of our favourite Saturday-night comfort food, and a source of constant inspiration to us all through highly-accurate media depictions of Italian gang culture. In my intense crash course of Italian culture, which included airport pat-downs and jumping over locked gates, I picked up a thing or two about what one should expect from the country responsible for giving us nuclear reactors.

  • Sign language is essential, but volume doesn’t hurt.
    This stereotype happens to be true, which is really quite convenient when one’s entire Italian vocabulary consists of the word “bella.” Because while the word “pretty” might be good for making friends it isn’t very useful for finding a restroom.

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    Within the first few hours of our arrival, my two friends and I had already found ourselves spectators to a sitcom-worthy exchange between two Italians at a ticket booth. Hands were in the air, tensions were high, and we were probably the only people in the room of 30 or so who didn’t try to get involved in some way. 

    I especially loved watching Italians having phone conversations. For one thing they answer the phone with “Pronto,” but don’t let that fool you. They take their jolly good time talking, oftentimes with hands still flying and the volume at max. Apparently Italians use an average of 250 hand gestures per day, so if you have working hands, communication shouldn’t be much of an issue. 

  • Italians tell time a little differently.

    If you’re looking for a vacation where everything plays out exactly according to plan, where wait time is minimal, and you know exactly what you’re doing at every minute, then go to Germany. I had been in the country for less than 24 hours, and my first encounter with the public transportation system was a full-fledged railway strike, which apparently is quite frequent there. When not on strike, however, TrenItalia is a highly-efficient way of travelling within the country. Be prepared for delays, but always be on time. Speaking from

  • Prepare to feel like a hobo.

    That’s right, folks, Italians have a great sense of style. Like, all the time. It’s not that they never go casual, but their definition of “casual” kind of puts North America to shame, especially when it comes to shoes. Exhibit A:DSC02318

  • Pack antacids.
    Pizza. Pasta. Home of Nutella.I feel like that’s really all the explanation I need, but perhaps a small anecdote will reinforce the point. Upon arriving at my friend’s house in Northern Italy, we were instantly greeted with cake, homemade jam, fruit, and tea. That was almost enough for a meal in of itself. Only several hours later, we were treated to homemade Italian pasta and several other small courses. The following day we made pizza (I don’t even know how many there were in total), were presented with two more cakes, and I’m almost certain that there were at least four more courses involved. I have never in my life been so close to exploding.  It was bliss.
  • This is an artist’s paradise.

    One of the friends I travelled with is an art student, and she absolutely fell in love with Italy’s art, especially in Florence. Unfortunately, we were moving so quickly through each city that we really only got a small taste of what each has to offer, but even a quick glance will tell you that there are centuries’ worth of art to discover.Florence (Firenze as the Italians say, quite useful to know when trying to purchase train tickets online) is considered the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and was home to the famous Michelangelo. His original David statue resides in the city and there are several other impressive replicas scattered throughout. At the Vatican Museum, visitors can find the renowned The Creation of Adam painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, along with some rather interesting characters being welcomed to hell; apparently one of them is the pope who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the wall.

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    Florence’s famous Basilica with the world’s largest masonry dome and one of several replicas of Michelangelo’s David
     placed around the city.


    A warning, though: If you intend to visit as many masterpieces as possible while in  Italy, it will cost you and you are not guaranteed to get a very good view of the  piece either. Tourism is quite heavy all-year round; some 25,000 people visit the Sistine Chapel each day. While it was incredibly beautiful, it was hard to enjoy. Visitors are herded from room to room much like cattle, and I’d say it was just about as comfortable. If you plan to visit, make sure to get there as early as possible to miss the lines.

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 What the Sistine Chapel really looks like inside.

         Of course, there is plenty of art that doesn’t require 16 Euros to look at. There are some incredible street artists who make their livelihood by attracting crowds with their unique methods of production.

DSC02417A very talented spray-paint artist at work. 

         In Florence, I was thoroughly impressed by the local boutiques, which sold everything from marble paper to Pinocchio puppets. Not necessarily cheap either, but appropriate for the family back home and generally of better quality than most tourist trinkets.

  • The ruins aren’t overrated.
    I’m a history nerd, but I’d heard so much about Rome and Pompeii that I figured it wouldn’t live up to the hype. I was pleasantly surprised. For only 12 Euros, you have two-day access to the Colosseum and the surrounding ruins called Palentine Hill. The Colosseum, though very crowded, was magnificent. It’s located in the middle of the city, surrounded by apartment complexes, and I must say it was quite impressive walking out of a crowded, dark, and filthy metro station to find myself standing in its looming shadow. As for Palentine Hill, it was icing on the cake and a wonderful contrast to the rest of the modern city.

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    It was worth the money, in my opinion.

    Yet in lieu of Rome, Pompeii was my personal favourite. I could have spent days wandering its chariot-rutted roads, exploring mansions of the upper-class and the quarters of slaves, admiring cracking mosaics, and marvelling over the body casts of Pompeii’s residents, their heads forever resting on their hands in peaceful slumber.

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    Beyond the Romans, there are plenty of other amazing historical sites that are relatively unknown to tourists as well as Italians. In northern Italy I stayed with a pen pal in a small town of approximately 6,000. She gave my friends and me a tour, and it was shocking to find a giant castle in the town’s center. Not only that, but this town had been at the center of massive crossfire between Allied and German forces for 17 days in WWII. Much of the town was destroyed, but somehow the castle escaped without irreparable damage.
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    While visiting my second pen pal in southern Italy, she brought me to a small UNESCO-protected village called Alberobello (literally “beautiful tree”). It is unique because of its “trulli,” temporary houses built with conical-shaped, stone roofs. The inhabitants of the area were getting rather sick of being taxed by foreign royalty, so when the tax collectors arrived at their doorstep they made sure that no one was home. How? They took their houses apart so that literally was no one home.

  • Pizza and gangsters are better in the South.

    Italy has its own “North-South” rivalry, and the culture is really quite different. Stereotypically, southerners are lazy and loud while northerners are cold-hearted and uncultured. Italy’s fashion centre is located in the North, while Naples, where pizza is believed to have originated, and the infamous Sicilian mafia are located in the South. In fact, each part of Italy is incredibly unique with its own dialect and customs. Italian as a language only became standardized about 100 years ago, and even today, an Italian travelling within Italy may not understand their fellow countrymen. Venice is on of the best examples of this difference. Until 1797, it was its own Republic and a might trading empire at that. Many Venetians are still fiercely nationalistic; they sport their own flag, speak their own language, and have for many years been attempting to succeed from Italy. The last referendum held was in just 2014.
  • Italians are some of the most hospitable people you will ever meet.

In the North or in the South, it made no difference to me. Italians are some of the warmest and most welcoming people I have ever met, and for that my two weeks in Italy made up some of my best memories in Europe. On my first day, when the trains weren’t running and I had no way to contact the friend I was staying with, perfect strangers were there to help me every step of the way. One woman made sure we got on the right train, and another let me borrow her phone, then waited until my friend showed up. As for the two pen pals I stayed with, I’d never met them before, but they and their families absolutely opened up their homes (and kitchens!) to me and my two friends. Their hospitality moved me beyond words. It also gave me a little indigestion. But the good kind.

         More pictures of Italy can be found here.

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Au Revoir

It seems travelling makes people realize one of two things: 1) Home is absolutely the most boring place on earth or 2) It’s not so bad as they thought. The latter is true for me. Europe is incredible, but just because it has castles and Colosseums and concentration camps doesn’t make it any better (or worse) than any other part of the world. It’s different and unique and unless Pangea is rapidly recreated it will most likely still be there in 10 or 15 years. Visiting Europe (or anywhere for that matter) is only a once-in-a-lifetime experience if I choose to make it so.

I planned to stay in France until June, but for various reasons I decided to leave Collonges before that. So I packed my bags and journeyed to Venice, Slovenia, Croatia, Paris, Angers, and Iceland before finally ending up in Québec. I’m currently living with my grandmother and doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do: learn French and become closer to my French side of the family. There are still many things to see in France, and one day I want to go back and explore it more thoroughly. But for now, I’m content to brave Canadian winters with six feet of snow, to indulge in real maple syrup, and to live under a roof with a decent Wifi connection. It’s not a decision I regret.

Day 30: In France, A Bit Better at French

Exactly a month ago, I was stepping on a plane with way too much luggage and “no idea what to expect.” It’s kind of funny to read my first blog entry because now I know what I should have been expecting then and what I would have done differently (like packing my water bottle). September 10, 2014, Stephanie had never been to Europe, ridden in a French ambulance, or tried Jardin Bio’s Noir Framboises dark chocolate, but here I am a month later, and I can cross all of those things off my bucketlist.

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This is where I live, at the foot of a mountain. Unfortunately, I live on the wrong side of the dorms and all I see out my window are trees, but many other students wake up to this incredible view every morning. The university campus is situated only about 15 minutes or so from town, which I’m certain was the inspiration for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. 

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I wish shutters were a thing in North America.

In any case, the location is spectacular, and because the campus is so high up, we have to use our leg muscles a lot but we also get a great view of Geneva, which is barely an hour away. I literally walk across the Swiss border almost every day.

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There’s also great hiking.

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And food.

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(That cake took up about half a container of cocoa.)

By this point, it’s starting to look like I do nothing but stare at the scenery and eat, but I assure you I am studying French. Hours and hours and hours of French. Mornings of classes and then evenings full of homework. I won’t sugarcoat it either — there are moments where I want to toss my workbooks out the window and others where I feel about ready to die of humiliation because what I mean to say and what I actually say are really quite different. It’s all part of learning a new language, I realize that, but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable. Still, I’ve made progress. I’ve read my first Asterix comic cover-to-cover in French, a long-time goal for me, and I’ve been able to carry on in French with perfect strangers for perhaps 15 minutes or so, long enough to have a decent conversation with a minimal number of blank stares on both sides.

Something else I’m truly proud of: I was also able to communicate semi-coherently while in anaphylactic shock. The food here is actually really good (they know how to cook vegetables!) and they accommodate my allergies as best they can, but it so happened that something had dairy in it that wasn’t supposed to. It must not have been very much because it took my body about an hour to react, and I happened to be out for a walk in town — without an Epipen (stupid me). Out of desperation, I wandered into the nearest store and announced in French that I needed a hospital. I ended up waiting in a pub for about 15 minutes before the ambulance finally showed up, and they wouldn’t actually give me any medication until they were able to properly diagnose me at the hospital. I was there for about five hours.

When it was all said and done, I had no idea had to get back to the university because I had no phone, I didn’t know the dormitory number, and no one knew where I was to begin with. Surprisingly, the hospital called a taxi to take me back; originally, they even offered to bring me to the school in an ambulance. By that point, though, I confess I was fed up. Last year alone, I had three hospital escapades in less than three months, and I was just within the States; I did not by any stretch of the imagination want to go through that again, especially in France. But when I got back to the dorm, the dean was waiting for me at the door, invited me into her personal apartment, and fed me Special-K. I found out later that all the French language students had gathered together at supper, trying to figure out where I was, and upon learning that I had gone to the hospital, many lovingly threatened to personally stab me if anything like that were to ever to happen again.

And so far, that’s been the best part about France. Not the hospital trip, but the people and how much I could tell they cared even though we’d only know each other for two weeks. The university itself is so diverse, with students from places such as Finland, Slovakia, and Madagascar, and I’ve gotten the chance to make friends from very different walks of life, as well as meet other North Americans who share my passions and even many of my eccentricities. I’m discovering that there’s something to be gained from everyone: So far, I’ve learned what the Finnish call their own country (Suomi – nothing like Finland), been enlightened by an Aussie as to the correct pronunciation of “margarine,” and come to the stark realization that “without doubt” in French actually means “probably.” All this I’ve learned in the course of a month, and I still have eight to go. I’m making the most of every minute.

Annecy

 

Day 0: Almost French, Almost in France

When I was about four, I believed that my mom would hand a card or paper bills to the cashier and receive the exact amount in shiny coins. I also believed that I was an expert in French because I could sing the alphabet. Imagine my surprise when I realized that you don’t get paid to shop and that knowing my ABC’s did not make me fluent.

I’m still not fluent, even though I’ve studied in school since I was 10 and my dad’s entire side of the family is French. I can fake it, but when the chips are down and I’m in Quebec where everyone is speaking French, I’m lost. I can pick out a few words and throw out a few phrases, but that’s about it. My goal? The next time I visit, I want to understand everything they say, to be a part of the conversation. If we speak any English, it will be because we choose to, not because I need it.

Today, I leave for France. (And what better way to start off, arriving on September 11?) I’ll be attending Le Campus Adventiste du Salève in Collonges-sous-Salève, a picturesque town surrounded by mountains, bordering Geneva. I will be eating, breathing, and sleeping French; the people there actually refuse to speak English with you, even if they can, because they want to immerse you. At this point, I don’t know who my roommate will be, what my classes are, or if I even have Wifi. All I know is that someone is supposed to be at the airport to pick me up. I’m basically praying that everything will work together and trusting that it will.

Collonges-Sous-Saleve(That red dot on the map is Collonges.)

Am I excited? You betcha. I’m going to see as much of France and the rest of Europe as I can and soak in as much of the language as possible. But more than anything, I’m excited to see how I’m different a year from now. I have no idea what to expect, but I know I’m going to love it.